King Lear
Background on King Lear: King Leir the Play: Background and Introduction


In Shakespeare’s day there was neither television nor radio, neither dictionaries nor history books as we know them, not even newspapers or magazines.  Formal schooling took place in Latin and covered classical texts from ancient Greece and Rome.  University schooling generally prepared students for a career in the church or the court.  Less than half the population could read.  What passed for historical understanding then came from a few Chronicles (Holinshed and Hall) and oral history, both of which forms had good helpings of myth interspersed with occasional facts.  One such popular story concerned King Leir and his three daughters, a story Holinshed dated in 800 BC.  The story had been in circulation as part of England’s mythical past for many centuries.  As it involved foolish monarchs, invidious children, and the desire for orderly succession of the crown, it had natural interest for this small island nation struggling through monarchical and religious traumas of various sorts.  The struggles of King Leir could be seen as symbolic, and Leir’s eventual triumph as a hoped-for utopian ending, even as the general story brought Cordelia down in the end.  In some ways it was a story of romance, political intrigue, travel, foreign countries, and domestic difficulties just meant for the stage.

Someone must have felt so in the early 1590’s.  It was the high moment of the English history play.  Marlowe (who died in 1593) had written Tamburlaine and Edward II.  Shakespeare had probably completed his Henry VI cycle and Richard III, and may have moved on to Richard II, to be followed shortly thereafter by Henry IV and Henry VGorbuduc, about a king succeeding Leir who also divided his kingdom, but between his two sons, had been performed before Elizabeth I some thirty years preceding.  If one imagines a scene just slightly displaced from Shakespeare in Love of two or three Cambridge wits who acted in and wrote plays for the new outdoor theaters that shared entertainment space with brothels and bars on the south bank of the Thames, and puts them in a bar with paper and quills, deciding to collaborate on a new play about the old king and his daughters, one may be imagining the origin of The True Chronicle History of King Leir and his Three Daughters, Gonerill, Ragan, and Cordella.

Unfortunately, we know almost nothing about this play’s origins.  It was published in 1605, but a play with a similar title was entered in the Stationer’s register in 1595, and we have some evidence of a production by the Queen’s Men sometime before.  Whether Shakespeare actually saw it, or played in it, is unknown.  (That he knew it is almost certain.)  Its author or authors (some discrepancies in characterization and plotting suggest multiple authors working in haste, a common practice of the time) are also unknown.  It clearly follows the broad outlines of the story from the histories in Holinshed and Spenser, but it adds characters, motivations, and events not recorded therein.  In particular, no one is killed, but Ragan and Gonorill attempt to kill Lear directly through a long and convoluted series of scenes involving an assassin/messenger.  Unlike the histories, the final kingdom is united under France, with Cordelia as Queen.  Furthermore, the two husbands appear to have no role in Lear’s abuse (or even to know about it), yet they are the ones attacked in the end by the King of France.  The play is clearly Christian, with some Catholic overtones (mentions of Purgatory and such).  It is also smutty, crudely so, and at times quite burlesque.  While the topic is serious, the play can be seen as easily as a comedy as a historical romance (it is definitely not a tragedy).

The play features a rather large number of disguises intended to confuse the class of the disguised individual.  These disguises would have been realized in costumes of the Elizabethan period, not the supposed period of King Leir himself.  It is fair to guess then that dress carried strong class indices at the time.  The play is just over 2500 lines long, suggesting a stage time around 2-1/2 hours.  It could be cut quite a bit without losing anything, but it fits within the time parameters of Elizabethan theater as is. Unlike modern plays, there would be no program notes or auxiliary explanations available to the audience (many of whom could not read anyway).  However, the audience would surely know the title of the play.  The play begins with sixty lines before a name is announced, from which we can assume that the audience knew the general story ahead of time.  Some of the play’s interest therefore arises from how the play adds to, and changes, the common story.  As Spenser and Holinshed more or less agree on the story, which both agree with Geoffrey of Monmouth, we may fairly assume that the common story was the one they report.


The following pages present King Leir in three forms: a brief synopsis, a detailed synopsis, and the play itself.  The detailed synopsis and the play text both divide into 32 scenes, with each scene given a page beginning with the synopsis and followed by the play text.  You will notice from the original play text that the scenes there are not numbered or marked off in any obvious way.  This publication has used the convention that a scene on the open-air Elizabethan stage began with an entrance and ended when the stage was empty again.

This particular play text was compiled, edited, and modernized by B. Flues and R. Brazil for their website  The synopsis was written by your guest contributor.

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